21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus went through cities and towns teaching, all the while making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked, “Are those who are to be saved few in number?” Jesus replied, “Try to come in through the narrow gate. Many, I tell you, will try to enter and be unable. Once the householder has risen to lock the gate, you may find yourselves standing outside, knocking and saying, ‘Please open up for us,’ but the answer will come, ‘I do not know you.’
“Then you will start to say, ‘But we ate and drank in your company. You taught in our streets.’ But again you will be told, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Away from me, you evildoers!’ There will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Leah and Rachel and Jacob, and all the prophets safe in the house of God, and you yourselves rejected.
“People will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and will take their places at the feast in the house of God. Some who are last will be first; and some who are first will be last.”Homily for 21 August 2004
Fr. Frank Baiocchi
Who’s going to be saved, and who’s not? Who’s in heaven, who’s out? Who gets in through the gate, and who gets left at the gate? This is the question Jesus was given in today’s Gospel. It’s also the very question many ask today. But as so often happens, Jesus lets the people know that this is not the right question. The question is not who is saved and who is not saved. The right question is how are we going to be saved?
According to the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, people need perfect obedience to the Law and ritual prescriptions of Moses to be “in.” So if you aren’t Jewish, you don’t get through the pearly gate. Even if you are Jewish, it’s a bit “iffy”! Yet in today’s First Reading Isaiah tells us that people from the distant coastlands, people from all nations, people unfamiliar with the Law of Moses, will be saved. That’s God’s own word on the subject! So Jewish blood alone isn’t the ticket to salvation. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who take almost the entire Bible very literally, you need to be among the chosen 144,000 to be saved; but since there are already quite a few million Jehovah’s Witnesses in the world today, I wonder why they continue knocking on our doors! Their quota is all used up.
Then according to some Catholic bishops, only our total and perfect observance to every pronouncement of the church hierarchy will get us through the gate. But we might reasonably inquire why we should be so obedient to these very bishops who have already proven by word and action to be unworthy of our trust.
When Jesus speaks of the “narrow gate” in today’s Gospel, his listeners understand precisely what he means. Jesus is traveling through towns and cities, we are told, on his way to Jerusalem. In Scripture, Jerusalem is referred to as the ‘heavenly city’ and is frequently used as a symbol for heaven. Like all cities at the time, Jerusalem was surrounded by massive walls for protection. The only entrance was through a gate, and the gate was deliberately narrow so that enemies could have no easy access to attacking the city. Jesus is simply using a reference that his listeners easily recognize.
But Jesus is not telling us that only a few people will get into the heavenly city. The gate to salvation is not narrow because God wants the gate to be narrow. Rather, the gate to salvation is narrow because we haven’t as yet learned to be true disciples of Jesus. Genuine discipleship is the key to entering this gate!
When our Abba God creates the world, God sees all people and everything as “good” – the Bible tells us so in the Book of Genesis. Jesus is this Abba God’s reflection for us. Jesus, by word and example, offers us four criteria for salvation. First, He says, “If you are to be my disciples, you must listen to me and learn from me.” Faith is more than a treasure to possess; it is a road to travel. It involves continual growth and constant awareness of God’s Spirit in our lives. St. Paul says, “When I was a child, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child, I acted like a child. But now that I have become an adult, I have abandoned childish ways.” Have we abandoned childish, immature ways of perceiving God and each other, or are we still clinging to these habits of the past? Are we perpetually stuck in the mud on our faith journey, or are we still trudging ahead steadily?
Secondly, Jesus says, “If you are to be my disciples, show care, concern and compassionate love for people and for all God’s creation, especially for the least powerful and most vulnerable.” The early Christians did that so well that the pagans of that time remarked, “Look at these Christians, these followers of Jesus, look how they do love, how they take care and show compassion!” Can that still be said of us disciples of Jesus today?
Thirdly, Jesus says, “If you are to be my disciples, carry your crosses.” If we walk in Jesus’ footsteps, we will suffer much as he did. Jesus was ignored, insulted, misunderstood and attacked. We who are His followers should expect some of the same treatment at times. It is through our sufferings of body, mind and spirit, that we most resemble Jesus. It is through these pains that we can enter the narrow gate at our own resurrection.
Finally, Jesus says, “If you are to be my disciples, you will share this Eucharist meal with me and my family.” In Jesus’ time, the sharing of a meal was a sign of joy and acceptance. It meant belonging to the family circle. It is called “table fellowship” by today’s Scripture scholars. This table fellowship is the promise of the reign of God in our lives. By sharing this Communion meal today in church, we are validating Jesus’ promise of eternal life. He said: “I am the Living Bread…and the one who eats this Bread will live forever.”
Here’s the program: If we are to be Jesus’ disciples in fact as well as in name, we have to continue growing in our faith, we have to live lives of genuine compassion and love, we have to carry our crosses – whatever shapes they may assume – and finally, we have to belong to his table fellowship. That should keep us going till the day we die. Then on the day we die, that “narrow gate” wont look so narrow at all. It’ll be wide open and welcoming because it is our homecoming – yours and mine!